Skyward accomplishes in eleven songs what much more famous bands struggle to do over the course of two full length albums. There is a breathlessly exciting breadth of musical vision on this release, a go for broke spirit reaching for the best expression of its heart through musical form. The band hails, perhaps unexpectedly, from the mountain area near James Madison University , but their broad-based and cinematic approach sounds like something much more common to dense metropolitan areas and even betrays a progressive influence with a distinctive European flavor. There are eleven songs on their debut album and, although they have an expansive sound that reaches for the majestic, they never overextended themselves and/or sink into self-indulgence. Instead, they remain vibrant throughout and there is never sense of too many notes, passages played out too far, or a lull in the inspiration.
The second song, “Casualty”, makes an immediate and deep impact. Skyward puts their best foot forward with a titanic clash between Jordan Breeding’s guitar, a thunderous rhythm section, and the powerful synthesizer lines from keyboardist Anna Breeding. Singer Jonathan Huang wails powerfully over the top of it all. “The Floor” is another hard hitting rocker in the mold of “Casualty”, but the band restrains the guitar attack here some in favor of a more nuanced approach. This is most evident in Jordan Breeding’s playing throughout the song’s second half. “Animal” is, pardon the pun, an entirely different beast than listeners have hitherto heard on the album. Skyward proves they can temper their theatrical structures into rhythmic, minor key moodiness and the propulsive tempo set by the rhythm section never wavers once. Huang responds with one of his most atmospheric vocals yet. His talent for tapping deep into the musical mood of each song is one of the crucial pieces in the release’s success.
“Stand-Ins” serves listeners one of the album’s best riffs, a churning guitar line that Breeding wrings dry of every drop of drama. Huang’s string of inspired vocals continues with his impassioned reading of another very clever, intelligent lyric. “Burn” is another atmospheric masterpiece that proves the band’s songwriting has mastery over conjuring up mood with even the briefest passages. “(M)arrow” is a much deserved showcase for second singer Anna Breeding and the fine lyric gives her excellent material to work with. The band creates a delicate musical setting for this late gem. “Giving Tree” is, perhaps, the album’s most surprising song. It’s close to an outright ballad that draws from a classic of children’s literature but restates those themes in an uniquely adult and personal fashion. It’s quite simply Huang’s finest vocal on the album and his aching rendition will linger in the memory. The album’s final track, “Drag Me Through”, is an anthem for the wounded that concludes the self titled debut on a rousing note. Skyward emerge here as an immense, fully formed talent still bursting with boundless promise yet unrealized. They are superb players, but the songs here aren’t some sort of academic exercise. Instead, they are full blooded expressions of the human experience given memorable musical form.
9 out of 10 stars.